• Dina Smith

How to Build Resilience in a Crisis


Image by Patrick Saliceti

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our current reality in unprecedented ways. And while we will eventually arrive at a new normal, it will involve a dramatic restructuring of our customary economic and social order.

Handling and overcoming the challenges we are facing now and the ones still coming our way is a vital necessity, and one that will require resilience. In other words, the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences.

And while certain individuals are more resilient than others, the capacity for resilience exists in all of us: resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. Follow the strategies below to not only manage your current stress and make it through this crisis, but to also emerge even stronger than before.

Connect. Social distancing and sheltering in place have separated us physically. The pain of tragic events, such as this pandemic, can also lead some people to isolate themselves. However, we can still establish meaningful relationships and doing so now is more important than ever. Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of social support in maintaining good psychological and physical health.

In the face of adversity, connecting with others can remind you that you’re not alone with your difficulties, and the feeling of community and shared experience will increase your resilience to weather the challenges.

Set a target of reaching out to at least one or two people each day just to say hello and see how they’re doing. Call an old friend, family member, or former colleague. Check in with your team members individually or join one the many virtual gatherings currently hosted online.

Amplify the benefits of connecting by asking yourself one question as you go about your day and interact with others: how can I help this person have a better day?

Connecting with and helping others will strengthen and support you through this crisis. In the longer term, deepening your relationships and network now will also contribute to your future career success.

Choose Helpful Thoughts. The uncertainty of the current situation is psychologically threatening and activates our amygdala, the instinctive, emotional part of the brain responsible for detecting threats and keeping us safe. The more activated our amygdala, however, the less able we are to access our prefrontal cortex, which houses higher order thinking and reasoning. The issue, of course, is that how you think influences how you feel – and thus how resilient you are when you are faced with challenges. To cope productively with the current situation and grow your resilience for the future, it’s essential to identify when your thinking has become irrational and choose healthy, helpful thoughts instead.

Look out for the following cognitive traps in times of crisis: catastrophizing difficulties, predicting something bad will happen without evidence, overgeneralizing, focusing solely on the negative, or seeing the situation as permanent. Try to identify areas where you may be thinking irrationally and consciously adopt a more balanced and grounded perspective.

The best way to break one of these cognitive traps is to scientifically scrutinize your thoughts and consider the hard facts. Examine the evidence, ask a trusted friend or colleague if they agree with your thoughts, or run an experiment to test your beliefs.

You often cannot change a highly stressful event, but you can control how you interpret and respond to it. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

The ability to identify and manage your thoughts is a mental muscle that, similar to your other muscles, grows stronger with repetition. Now is an opportune time to get a lot of reps under your belt.

Find meaning in today. Many of my executive coaching clients are wrestling with ways to find a sense of purpose during this time. Clients have shared that they feel untethered and unmotivated. Things that used to matter no longer have any importance to them. It’s no wonder. Life as we know it has been stripped away and much of what we are feeling right now is a sense of grief.

To manage your stress and find meaning in today as well as build resilience for the future, try the following:

First, ask yourself: what can I learn from this? When we choose to see adverse circumstances as learning opportunities, we use the challenge to our advantage. To reduce your anxiety and capitalize on the potential learning, shift from thinking about what you can learn to identifying actions you can take to build new skills, test different approaches, or experiment with novel solutions.

Second, imagine it’s 12 months from now and you’ve given yourself an A for your ability to handle everything. What did you do to earn this grade? This question, inspired by The Art of Possibility, will help you think more expansively and determine what you most need now to feel satisfied with your actions later. Giving yourself an A will give you a sense of hope, possibility, and meaning in the present. And in the future, you’ll be able to look back and identify how you overcame this challenge, which adds to your sense of internal strength and well of resilience.

Creating connections. Choosing helpful thoughts. Finding meaning in today. While we all await the return of our new normalcy, these proven, practical strategies have the power to help you govern the stress of today. And without a doubt, strengthening your capacity to adapt to and recover from adversity is one of the very best ways to build a successful tomorrow.

© 2020 Cognitas LLC